Life Health & Wellbeing

Thursday 19 July 2018

A perfect storm

Setting unreasonably high standards isn't a badge of honour

Brené Brown
Brené Brown
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

I once spent six months looking for a sofa. Furniture showrooms were searched, custom sofa websites were scanned and, still, I couldn't find anything that hit the hat-trick of comfort, style and value.

Eventually, after a half-year of nitpicking and hair-splitting, a sofa was purchased. You would think, with all that fuss, that it now takes pride of place in my living room. On the contrary, I wish I could send it back...

I'm sharing this story because I think it exemplifies the great myth of perfectionism. There is an ill-founded idea that the perfectionist's meticulous nature leads to superior results. The truth, however, is that it is more likely to lead to indecision, procrastination and disinclination.

There are two types of perfectionism. Adaptive perfectionists have high standards but they can make peace with less-than-perfect. Maladaptive perfectionists, on the other hand, have unrealistically high standards - and they can't even contemplate the possibility of less-than-perfect.

Brené Brown puts it another way in The Gifts of Imperfection: "Healthy striving is self-focused: 'How can I improve?'" she writes. "Perfectionism is other-focused: 'What will they think?'

"Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best," she adds. "Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimise or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame."

Perfectionism - the unhealthy kind - is no badge of honour. The trait has been linked to anxiety, depression, addiction, persistent insomnia and early mortality.

It hampers creativity too. Artists, when staring at a blank canvas and seeking inspiration, often remind one another to "just start" - they can always tweak later. But the maladaptive perfectionist can't work this way: they either have a direct line to the elusive 'muse', or else they spend vast amounts of time procrastinating.

Indeed, when the late management consultant, Peter Drucker, said: "There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which need not be done at all", he was probably talking about the perfectionists who spend hours drawing up colour-coded to-do lists, rather than just getting to work.

Perfectionists have exceptionally high standards, but meeting those standards is another matter altogether. They can get so caught up in the detail that they lose sight of the big picture.

Worse, in the futile pursuit of perfection, they can miss deadlines, abandon goals and spend six months searching for a sofa that doesn't actually exist…

Recovering perfectionists will probably agree with Brown's description of perfectionism as a "self-destructive and addictive belief system". However, those still in the mindset's insidious grip may not realise just how paralysing perfectionism can be.

Misconceptions compound the issue. Society glorifies perfectionism as some sort of Type A superpower, hence the dark side of perfectionism often gets overlooked. And that's where the trouble begins. "If you don't manage to reframe perfectionism as a damaging and inferior mindset," writes Stephen Guise in How to Be an Imperfectionist, "the illusion of its superiority will thwart your desired changes."

In other words, maladaptive perfectionists have to start thinking of perfectionism as their fatal flaw rather than their competitive edge. Likewise, they have to learn how to make trade-offs and accept 'good enough' from time to time.

Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, describes perfectionists as 'maximisers' in this regard.

Faced with a choice, the perfectionist will thoroughly explore every possible option, even if the process is tedious and tiring.

'Satisficers', on the other hand, will make their decision as soon as their specific criteria are met, and they don't agonise over the options that they might have missed out on.

Unsurprisingly, satisficers tend to be happier than maximisers. "One of the reasons that maximizers are less happy, less satisfied with their lives, and more depressed than satisficers," writes Schwartz, "is precisely because the taint of trade-offs and opportunity costs washes out much that should be satisfying about the decisions they make."

The tyranny of choice that the digital age offers makes being a maximiser even more challenging. If you're the type of person who becomes overwhelmed by the dizzying array of options, Schwartz suggests spending some time getting to know yourself and what you care about. "Think about occasions in life when you settle, comfortably, for 'good enough'," he writes. "Scrutinise how you choose in those areas; then apply that strategy more broadly."

Perfectionists also tend to be people-pleasers, so learning how to assertively say no will help you establish boundaries and stop feeling like you have to be all things to all people.

Giving yourself permission to make mistakes is equally important. Try adding phrases like, 'I don't know', 'I got that wrong', and 'my mistake' to your vocabulary, and notice how liberating it feels to say them.

Crucially, perfectionists have to explore their definition of 'enough'. Otherwise they'll continue trying to reach the unreachable, and no matter how hard they try, it will never be enough.

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